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Voting rights groups file lawsuit challenging new Ohio election date

Multiple organizations filed a lawsuit challenging the new Ohio primary election date, saying the April 28 timeline will prevent thousands of eligible voters — including people of color — from casting a ballot and unconstitutionally burden their right to vote.

The ACLU of Ohio, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Demos filed the lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute and several Ohio voters. They are challenging H.B. 197, the legislation that established the primary election date. The law will allow registered voters to cast their ballots by mail as opposed to going to a polling station and risking getting infected or spreading COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

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Ohio Department of Health Dr. Amy Acton ordered the polls not to open March 17 for the primary election in response to the public health crisis.

The plaintiffs’ main concerns are that the process for ballots to be cast by mail within a month is cumbersome, and the voter registration deadline 70 days before the new primary date.

“Under the General Assembly’s undemocratic election scheme, thousands, if not millions, of Ohioans will not get to vote through no fault of their own,” said Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio. “Ohio’s inefficient absentee voting system wasn’t designed for this massive scale, especially under such an impossible time frame. We call on the justice system to ensure that Ohio’s primary is constitutional and accessible.”

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In addition, the law will affect historically disenfranchised communities who are not accustomed to voting by mail and have difficulties navigating the process in such a short period of time, said Andre Washington, president of the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labor and civil rights organization.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to:

  • Order county board of elections to directly mail primary ballots to all registered voters who have not already cast a ballot in this election, return postage prepaid.
  • Allow voters who do not receive a ballot in time to vote at the board of elections.
  • Select an election date that would allow elections officials enough time to effectively administer the election and inform voters about how the primary election will proceed.
  • Set the voter registration date 30 days prior to the primary date, as required by federal law.

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Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose is named in the lawsuit.

“While Secretary LaRose is the named defendant in today’s action, it is ultimately H.B. 197 — which passed the Ohio General Assembly with unanimous, bipartisan votes in both the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate — that is being challenged,” LaRose’s spokeswoman Maggie Sheehan said. “His sworn duty as secretary of state is to carry out the law as the legislature crafts it on behalf of Ohio voters and to give them confidence in Ohio’s elections.”

Derrick Foward, president of the Dayton Unit NAACP and a vice president of the Ohio Conference Unit of the NAACP, said he does not agree with the lawsuit, adding that he’s not speaking for the statewide organization. The lawsuit would be a “huge” distraction, he said.

“While we may not agree with all decisions coming from the Ohio Statehouse, having Ohio voters to remember yet a third primary date would be doing the American people a disservice,” he said. “Our elected legislators have spoken, it’s time to vote on April 28, 2020.”

Still, the Dayton Unit NAACP will monitor how many people of color participate in the primary election compared to the 2016 primary election to determine if voting by mail will disenfranchise them, he said. Even if the new process does not disenfranchise voters now, it will become a model for the future, he said.

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